Men’s Health editor Toby Wiseman: When I first met you, I thought you were half-superman, half-madman. You’d just completed your first WOD marathon. Twenty-four Hero WODs over a day and night – a day and night that also happened to be dark, dank, cold and wet. With the last WOD to go, the gruelling Murph, you were blistered and knackered, yet you still blasted your way through pull-ups, press-ups and squats faster than I could hope to do on a good day. I was in bewildered awe. I thought, “This isn’t normal.”
Andrew Tracey: I’ll take that as a compliment, I think…
TW: What I’m saying is that you struck me as different – or just beyond.
AT: Well, thank you, but that’s just not true. I have no natural physical advantage. I would say that, on a spectrum, I’m probably below average on that score.
TW: Come on!
AT: It’s true. When I started training, I certainly didn’t think, “Wow, I’m good at this.”
TW: So are you saying it’s just desire? Or willpower?
AT: No. I just have an analytical approach. Whatever your challenge, it’s about breaking down what needs to be done, assessing whether it can be done, and then asking yourself whether you want to go out and do it. It’s true that I don’t give up easily. But, more often than not, the difference between success and failure comes down to how many times you’re willing to have a crack at it. If I try to lift something that’s beyond my capability, I don’t think of it as “too heavy”. I see it as “too heavy at the moment”. Everything is a process.
TW: Tell me what you were like as a kid, before you started training.
AT: Back then, I never did any team sports. I grew up in a town that was full of council estates. You had the middle-management enclaves where all the kids were brought up on rugby, so I was naturally precluded from that. And my dad didn’t raise me on football, either. So, I wasn’t interested in the two main team sports. I was very slight and, until senior-school age, I was more academic. And that came with expectations: I’d probably be the only kid there who would go to university, for example. But things didn’t pan out that way. Then, as I reached my teenage years, I fell into what you might call more countercultural pursuits: skateboarding and BMXing. And I guess that when you do that, you don’t really think about fitness, per se.
TW: But it is fitness, isn’t it? Skating was my life as a teenager, and now I realise quite how much mobility is required to be any good at it.
AT: Absolutely. I mean, it’s inherently about functional fitness, but in a detached way. Fitness is a by-product. There’s no training, as such. Looking back and knowing what I know now, I realise it’s all about flow, and that you’re practising for the sake of practising. You’re enhancing your mobility by getting back to a natural state and feeling no inhibition. To me, now, that’s what fitness is: never allowing your physicality to become a barrier to what you want to achieve. (Continued below)
TW: How did you find your way from the kerb to the squat rack?
AT: When I left school, I didn’t really know what to do. My dad said to me, “Either go to college or join the army.”He passed selection for the parachute regiment and served with the British army for years. The military was my get-out clause. I did an army foundation term, purely to get out of going to college. Once that was over, I needed to get a job quickly while I worked out what I wanted to do with my life. So, I replied to an advert for a receptionist-cum-dogsbody job at a local gym. Before this, the world of fitness had literally never occurred to me.
I had no idea what being fit or unfit meant. I’d only recently turned 16. I knew the trading estate where this gym was, and I knew its reputation. It was tiny: about 2,000sqft. In the morning, the only people there would be pensioners, walking on the treadmills. Then, in the evening, it was full of guys who came in after a day of building or plastering. Nowadays, you’d call it a hardcore bodybuilding gym. At the time, I was no more than nine stone soaking wet. I had the ankles of a sparrow. I was a dainty guy. But I took the job simply because I figured that I’d get minimum wage while figuring out what to do next.
TW: So, it wasn’t a light-bulb moment?
AT: More of a slow awakening, I’d say. The gym was run by this 21-stone bald guy, Enzo, who was covered in tattoos. He was a strongman competitor. His view was that you didn’t have to train if you wanted to work in his gym, but you probably should. It could have been
an intimidating environment – a lot of these men worked as doormen in the town, and I was a young lad doing what young lads do. But they turned out to be the nicest people I’d ever met. So, you’ve got these big, often juiced-up guys, who probably did a few unscrupulous things on the side, taking me under their wing. They started asking if I wanted to jump in with them on a set. And that was how I started training – with these monsters!
TW: What kind of stuff were you doing? How did you manage to keep up?
AT: It was just out-and-out bodybuilding work. There was nothing intelligent about it. But in retrospect, what it taught me was that no matter how knowledgeable you are, it’s the intensity and intent that are more important than anything else. You would have guys there doing completely different things to each other and still getting the same results. And that’s because the culture was just about hard work.
TW: But you’re not a grunter, you’re a thinker...
AT: Well, once I started training, I realised there were tons of books there. My job required me to be there for eight hours a day, and often there wasn’t a lot to do, so I started reading. There were all sorts of stuff – everything from academic literature on anatomy and physiology to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s The Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding – and I absorbed it all. People weren’t as informed back then as they are now. My boss, for instance, had a British Weightlifting Fitness Instructor certification and that was it – it’s just a one-day course. So, by reading and learning as much as I could, I quickly became more knowledgeable than most of the people around me.
That said, equally important was the sense of community and the feeling of acceptance. People quickly gathered that I was studious, so they would ask questions and I’d be able to answer. I’d talk to everybody, try to find out what they were doing and why, then research it. Amazingly, these guys were accepting of a 16-year-old pipsqueak and listened to what I had to say. If there was something they were curious about, or had a hypothesis they wanted tested, they knew if they asked me, I’d find out about it. It boosted my self-esteem. But it also taught me that if you’re smart in this industry, and if you’re a critical thinker, you can go a long way.
TW: I’m assuming you were making gains yourself there.
AT: Yeah, my own progress was pretty fast. Within two years – by the age of 18 –I wasn’t much smaller than I am now.
TW: All this is interesting because I don think I’ve ever seen you in a gym. I associate you with more of a DIY, organic approach: you train outside, you work around your environment, and you never seem overly bothered by numbers and scores...
AT: It’s true that I’m not dogmatic about it, though I’m very serious about the importance of good programming. Rather, my view is that whatever gives a person physical fulfilment is brilliant– be that training for an Ironman or going for a jog around the block. It doesn't matter to me whether what you do is seen as “optimal” by experts, because optimal doesn’t work if it’s not sustainable. The minimum effective dose to get the physiological benefits of exercise is actually incredibly low. Over the past year, when you’ve had people moaning about gyms being closed over lockdown – you know, people saying they need it for their mental health – I thought the fact is that you don’t really need to do a lot to tick those boxes.
TW: Even skateboarding!
AT: Absolutely. Listen, the skater’s approach has informed the way I see things. For instance, when you play football, you train for two or three nights a week, you play your game on a Sunday morning, and it’s pretty much the same for any kind of organised sport. But when you skate, you just go out. The journey and the destination are the same thing.
TW: There’s a link here to the way you approach training in general now, isn’t there? One of your mantras has always been: “You are not your gym membership.” In other words, the whole world’s a gym, if you’re looking at it right.
AT: Completely. Whenever I’ve been moved on from, say, doing pull-ups on some scaffolding or hanging rope off an RSJ [steel beam], it has never deterred me because it was ever thus when I was skating. “Don’t grind that bench,” or, “You can’t skate here!” I believe that the lack of restriction that comes with not being involved in organised activity has positively shaped my attitude to fitness. The whole idea that you “train at this place, on this day, at this time” just doesn’t apply to me. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve trained for many years of my life in a gym. I worked as a personal trainer for years in commercial gyms! But there’s never been that sense of dependency. I hate to be reductionist – there are enough people in the fitness space banging the “no excuses” drum. And the fact is that there are always very real issues that can get in the way of someone being able to exercise. But what I will say is this: there’s always somewhere you can do pull-ups.
TW: If you’ll humour the cod psychology for a moment, there appears to be two things going on here: the nurturing effect of a supportive community, but also a more personal, solo journey.
AT: Perhaps. Because I started out training in an environment where my physicality was so far removed from everyone else’s, there was no one to compare myself to. My workout buddies were alien to me! The only thing I had to work on was myself. What was praised above all else was effort. I could have been training with someone who was pressing 140kg for 15 reps; then every time I’d hop on the bench, we’d have to take two plates off each side. But that was irrelevant. It was the determination that was important. Everything else is just numbers.
TW: To go from scrawny runt to the size you are now in two years is quite the transformation. But it sounds as though you went through a mental shift, too, in terms of how you saw yourself. Would you agree?
AT: Well, it was affirming. It changed the trajectory of my life. I found something where my professional interest was directly aligned with my personal goals, and when that happens, you’re never not motivated. Whether I helped someone else improve, or whether I learned or achieved something myself, I was fully engaged. As a result, there was no real off switch. Everything became married together. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else where I’d get the same kind of total fulfilment.
TW: So, you became a full-fledged trainer?
AT: I joined the commercial gym scene in London for a while. Ironically, it was then that I became a bit disillusioned. In that kind of industry, you become a billboard for yourself. Everything becomes intertwined – your own training becomes a reflection of how you want to be seen. And I was having my head turned by other things. These were the early days of CrossFit, and it interested me hugely. I discovered Mark Twight and Gym Jones [a private club for hardcore fitness enthusiasts] around the same time, and what Gym Jones represented for me was...
TW: A cult?
AT: Yes – I mean, the clue is in the name! But it was that countercultural thing that appealed. When I was working in commercial gyms, Gym Jones represented the same kind of attraction as skating and BMXing had on me before. It began to inform the stuff I was curious about. Back then, there was no real accolade in how good a trainer you were. It was just about how much money you made, or how many clients you had. I became interested to see how these new techniques could be translated to ordinary people – and that’s still a big part of my ethos now. Learning doesn’t stop once you’ve got your Level 3 PT certificate. I’ve always been curious, interested in experimenting and innovating. I see it as a craft, as opposed to a job. It’s not set in stone.
TW: You’re clearly passionate about what you do. But you also strike me as being more relaxed than most trainers – like you’ve never lost the sense that you are living your life.
AT: I think that comes from understanding that we’re in this forever. There really is no rush. Having a specific and unwavering goal is like driving down the motorway, as opposed to traversing the back roads. But the views are better taking the scenic route, you know? And you can stop wherever you want and start again any time you like. That’s the key to longevity, in my view. Because where is the end? There is no finish line. And it’s curiosity – that exploratory view of fitness – that keeps you coming back, again and again. So, yes, my approach may be less serious in terms of its casual approach to the analytics. But I’d argue that it’s more serious in that I’m constantly striving to understand what fitness actually
is from a holistic point of view.
TW: How about an end goal?
AT: Ultimately, it’s the things that you find most fun that will keep you coming back. Nothing in my life has ever been done because I have this burning ambition to achieve goals. It’s mainly born out of crazy ideas. I’ve said that, one day, I’d like to climb the height of Everest on an indoor climbing wall. Not because “it’s there to be done” – I’m not that cheesy. Rather, because I want the experience. I don’t have a drive to win as such. I’ve no desire to beat, anyone. But I have this insatiable curiosity to try things out and see what I can achieve.
TW: This brings things round nicely to your cover: how do you reconcile this self-effacing, Zen approach to life with a desire to be on the front of this magazine? You could argue they’re opposite to each other...
AT: That’s an easy one. When I was working at Enzo’s all those years ago, Men’s Health always used to be in the racks. Depending on how big you were and what your goal was, the idea of being on a cover was a big thing for everyone. Now, I never do things the normal, straightforward way. I could have trained hard, stuck to a strict diet plan at all times, built myself a decent social media following and made it onto an agency’s books in the hope of getting picked for a shoot. But instead I’ve taken a more circuitous route. I’ve been honest with myself and indulged my passion. So, managing to find myself on the cover having taken the road less travelled feels more gratifying. It’s also an approach that feels aligned with everything I’m about. It means as much to me as opening the PT section in last year’s October issue and seeing the words “Edited by Andrew Tracey”. I know what I’ve done to achieve that, and the theme is just hard work. Be nice, get your head down, be consistent, don’t be afraid to explore, and see what comes of it. That’s still pretty Zen in my book.
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